In this nation we recently passed an historic anniversary. On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the landmark ruling that the nation’s public schools could no longer be “separate but equal.”
Reflecting on this decision, I can’t help but be disturbed. While this ruling was intended to guarantee equal access to a good public school education for all students, regardless of where they lived; this still is not the case 65 years later. Especially not in Paterson.
My frustration is exacerbated by an article I recall that highlights how Paterson, the city where I have spent my entire personal and professional life, has seen 1,600 layoffs over the past decade. This also bothers me. I am angry, annoyed and disappointed.
Angry as an educator, because I know that these layoffs will have a detrimental impact on the academic, social and professional futures of the nearly 30,000 students in the Paterson Public Schools.
Annoyed as a legislator, because despite my best advocating efforts, Paterson has been underfunded by $393 million, mostly under the previous administration, since the previous school funding formula was abandoned.
I am disappointed, too, because these layoffs increase the likelihood that Paterson students will not get the quality education that they deserve — simply because of their ZIP code. Not their intellect. Not their desire to learn. But where they live.
During the 2017-2018 school year, Paterson public schools lost 88 teachers to budget cuts. For the 2018-2019 term, it was 244. Looking ahead for the 2019-2020 school year, Paterson students will have 166 fewer teachers.
And those numbers only reflect the teaching positions that will be eliminated.
When Paterson students begin a new school year this September, they’ll be trying to learn in an environment with fewer, non-teaching positions — 92 to be exact — including vice principals and supervisors.
And while there will be fewer teachers in Paterson classrooms, student enrollment is increasing. Classroom sizes are swelling, and the one-on-one help that is so key to learning is becoming impossible.
Paterson students also will be losing acceleration programs, science programs, technologically-equipped classrooms, classroom supplies, bilingual programs, afterschool programs, staff professional development courses, and facility upgrades.
When I tour suburban schools in my district and see their state-of-the-art classes, tools and resources, I continue to wonder how Paterson students are expected to learn and thrive when they constantly have such eliminations and reductions. (Updated, complete text books are even a hot commodity in Paterson.)
Adding to these shortcomings is the challenge of attracting high-quality teachers in a district that is increasingly expected to do more with less. Paterson schools are not appealing to educators. They just aren’t. —
This sentiment has a rippling effect as the number of students showing an interest in becoming teachers themselves has decreased from seven to five percent.
What’s most troubling is that this is not a new story for Paterson. We have seen this narrative before, and it’s becoming very tiring, taxing and old. It actually seems very pre-Brown vs. Board of Education when the quality of a student’s education was determined by their neighborhood. It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now.
Instead of taking Paterson schools backwards with more funding cuts, let’s move forward by funding Paterson, and all schools for that matter, adequately so that students can excel.
Students like Justin, the eldest of my four sons, who just earned his master’s degree. To say that I was elated at his graduation is an understatement. The joy that I, along with my wife, felt was indescribable.
Yet seeing him culminate another level of educational success was somewhat bittersweet for two reasons: 1) I wish my late mother could have been with us, and 2) Because I knew that, although my son had moved further along the path of educational success, thousands of Paterson students are still being left behind.
While I can’t bring my mother back, I can honor her legacy by working tirelessly to help schools get sufficiently funded so that all students can thrive. Not just my own son, but all students.
Paterson students deserve nothing less. They should not be a part of this same script — 65 years from now.
Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Bergen, Passaic) represents the 35th legislative district in State Assembly. His son, Justin, recently earned a master’s degree in Sport Management from the University of Arkansas.